The door swings open and chimes-in a patron. The café in Old Ottawa South is bustling with the clanking of drinkware, muddled chatter, the dry wheeze of an espresso machine, and the loud shameless slapping of keys by the young woman working at her laptop next to me. It’s a busy space, though the rain and promise of thunderstorms might have something to do with that.
A couple sits at the table in front of me. Their body language and dialogue suggests discontent. He’s quite aggressive, delivering microaggressions at every opportunity. Even when she’s not at the table, he scans the room like a raptor scouring for prey, tightening his livid eyes, spluttering inaudible damnation from his lips. I worry for her, but it’s likely that I’m misreading the situation so I return to my business.
I think we’re on the other side of the pandemic now, though echoes linger. Some continue to wear masks, despite mandates being lifted – maybe they have reasons beyond the immediate demands of public health. Maybe folks have found comfort in the touch of medical-grade fabric against the skin, like the soothing compression of a weighted blanket or the inert cool rub of arnica cream. I wonder what it will take to do away with these face swaddles or if I should just learn to live with them, like the viruses among us.
SARS-CoV-2 has certainly left an impression, some welcomed. Many scars, perhaps indelible. More time at home. More time alone. Involuntary self-isolation imposed on many, but hardly a departure from the “old normal” for some. Still, the pull of engagement was there before – a dreaded party invitation, summer plans, in-person appointments, “let’s chat over coffee”, “want to come in?” It was there, we expected it, so even if despised it was anticipated and kept us on our toes.
Two plus years flashed by. Our impact radius was reduced to a small hoop: the bed, the kitchen, coffee, stove, home-office, yard, neighbourhood stroll. Nothing to anticipate. No forcible nudge beyond the nest, and therein we rooted ourselves; wore through multiple sweatpants; habituated to online payments, meetings, and events; learned the names and habits of immediate neighbours; up-skilled the craft of independent living; “rescued” an ill-fated dog. We rooted deep in place, institutionalized in our own homes.
It’s all coming back, though lacking some of its former edge. The torpor hangs like a fog over our heads and we stumble about trying to regain a foothold while gasoline burns our pockets to ashes. We can hit the road now, but still we can’t. Well, some can, but more cannot.
A man stretches his neck to look in my direction. He’s not exactly making eye-contact, but he’s awfully close. He then walks around me with his eyes still fixed on a target: the young woman with the slappy-key fingers beside me.
He: “What are you doing here?”
She: “I often come here, I love this coffee shop. And you?”
He: “I often come here, I love this coffee shop.”
She: “Look at us :)”
He: “Yah, isn’t that something?”
I heave a little, but refrain from laughing. They’re former colleagues, lawyers. He was a higher-up, it seems. She’s quite young compared to him, likely a former articling student at the firm he still works at. His flirtatious comments and mannerisms signal a breach of professional ethics, but she redirects him with Jen Psaki–like finesse. A little girl enters the scene, pointing at the books in the back of the cafe, “Daddy, ca’ we go?”
I wonder what the “new normal” will be like. Perhaps this torpor is just me re-emerging into a post-pandemic world with the same melancholic humdrum as before, but now with COVID-19 as my scapegoat. Maybe this is it – what else should it be? – maybe it’s just whatever “this” is and many ill-fated dogs given up for a second round of adoption.